In Barons, J.E. Dyer tells the tale of the men who built the railroads across the United States, and their rise to fortune, political office, and power. The book focuses on ‘The Associates’: Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Charles Crocker, and their role in building the Central Pacific Railroad from California to Utah, where it met the Union Pacific, creating one line across the continent.
All four men were from relatively modest backgrounds, although Leland Stanford’s family were comfortably-off land owners. Taking advantage of Western expansion and the California gold rush, all were running businesses in Sacramento at the time Theodore Judah proposed a workable route could be found over the Sierra Nevadas, previously considered to be a barrier impossible for a railroad to cross.
Less well known, perhaps, than the story of the building of the Union Pacific (thanks in part to the AMC series Hell on Wheels, which documents that project in somewhat fictionalized detail), Barons tells a story of opportunity and exploitation, conflict and compromise, and of four men who grew impossibly wealthy on the backs of largely Chinese labour. With the undeniable corruption of the Union Pacific’s Thomas Durant and his fraudulent Crédit Mobilier construction company as a foil, The Associates are presented as no more self-serving than any other industrial ‘baron’ of the great age of Western expansion – which is not to say they were models of ethical behaviour.
By not introducing fictional characters of any importance, Dyer is left with the historical narrative, and for the most part appears to have been true to it. But some of the scandals attached to these men – Stanford’s public anti-Chinese immigration stance at a time he was importing Chinese labour; Huntington’s free hand with bribes to Congress – is downplayed. The result is a somewhat flat portrayal. In a story where the outcome is known, the characters and their strengths and weaknesses are what keeps a reader intrigued. A greater contrast with the lives of the workers on the railroad might have created greater tension and contrast within the narrative, as well.
But I know more now about the building of the Central Pacific Railroad than I did before, and I learned it as entertainment. For a reader interested in this slice of United States history, Barons is a good introduction, although I believe the story is more complex than presented here.
©Marian L Thorpe